For China, a new kind of feminism

Chinese Women At Work Poster

Chinese Women At Work Poster

If you want to Lean In in Chinese, you “Take One Step Forward.” That’s how the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s contemporary feminist manifesto, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” has been translated here.

And you do it with gusto, judging from the reactions of about a thousand students and businesspeople at two events in Beijing last week where Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, promoted the new Chinese version of her book.

“People were hungry for it,” Allison Ye, co-founder of a “Lean In circle” in Beijing — a small group of peers who meet to talk about the book’s message — said of the response to Ms. Sandberg’s main point: overcome your internal barriers to success and get to the deal table.

The enthusiasm suggests an intriguing possibility: As the Chinese government strikes anew against freedom of speech, detaining even mild-mannered democracy activists, civil society advocates and popular public opinion leaders, might there be a feminist revolution in China before there is a democratic one?

In recent weeks, Lean In circles have set up in half a dozen universities in the capital, including Tsinghua University, Peking University and the Communication University of China, members said in interviews.

“I feel like this is a new stage for us,” said Ms. Ye, 27, who works for a Chinese company. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel that despite the cultural differences between America and China, the method is universal. I feel it’s true that you can take responsibility for yourself, it’s a good thing, and then you can change your situation.”

Of course, feminism in China predates Ms. Sandberg’s book. But it has gained new focus with the arrival of the movement here. Ms. Ye’s conversion began in March, when she chanced online upon a TED talk given by Ms. Sandberg in 2010 called “Why we have too few women leaders.” She was hooked.

“I was shaken,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘Who is she?’ Everything she said was, wow! So true. I watched it three times in one day. Then I bought an English copy of her book.

“With a friend, we said, ‘Why don’t we open a Lean In circle? We want to support Chinese women and help them set up their own circles.”’

Word spread, including to 21-year-old Carrie Huang. Two weeks ago, Ms. Huang set up a circle at the prestigious Renmin University of China, where she studies finance. “My friends and I, we all felt that we do that — we underestimate ourselves,” she said in an interview. “It has to do with our education and background. Our parents tell us, ‘You are girls, get yourself a stable life and don’t have too much ambition.”’

Many young Chinese women, especially in cities, are highly educated and beginning to overtake men in some college subjects — Ms. Huang said there were 16 women and 7 men in her finance class — but deep cultural messages hold them back.

“We fear we aren’t good enough. We lack confidence,” Ms. Huang said, adding that many women in China prioritize their boyfriends’ or husbands’ goals. “What we need is the courage to try different things,” she said. “It’s about discovering what you want to do. Parents have wishes for us, and it’s hard to change.”

At their weekly meetings, Ms. Huang said, she and her half-dozen “circlers,” some of whom are male, plan to raise specific questions. “We want to talk about ‘strong women’ and how men see them — as aggressive or bossy?”

Not everyone likes the Chinese translation of the book’s impactful English title. Some snickered that it was similar to the message found in men’s public urinals to “please take a step forward.”

Ms. Huang says it doesn’t quite catch the psychological nature of Ms. Sandberg’s message. “It makes it sound like it’s about overcoming external obstacles, taking a step forward,” she said. “But actually, this book is about overcoming your inner obstacles.”

Either way, experienced Chinese feminists have welcomed it.

“I think her message is definitely an empowering one, calling for more women to get to the deal table,” said Feng Yuan, an activist for gender rights and equality.

Still, it is only one response to the daunting cultural and institutional hurdles facing women in China, Ms. Feng said.

“I don’t think the personal approach can change the fundamentally unequal gender structures,” she said. “But in terms of a woman’s individual situation, it’s useful because a lot of women fear feminism, that kind of collective call. A personal message is workable.”

It may not work for uneducated, poor or rural women, Ms. Feng said, an echo of criticism that the book has received in the West. “Her target audience is educated and ambitious women, and these women are able to mobilize resources to achieve their goals,” she said.

“But we shouldn’t be too critical,” she said. “You can’t expect her to have a formula for all women’s rights. Even the very well educated need this, and they should have it.”

Ms. Huang and Ms. Ye say China is ready for “Lean In,” regardless of the tight political atmosphere.

“I think everything we do in the Lean In circle is positive,” Ms. Huang said. “We’re not in violation of anything, so we should be O.K.”

Ms. Ye said: “I’ve thought about it because I’m very careful. I think if the government allowed Sheryl Sandberg to promote her book, then the government supports the content of her book.” Adding some irony to the situation, Facebook is barred from China’s censored Internet.

“A lot of what she says fits with the Chinese government’s message,” Ms. Ye said. “I think as long as we stay within a circle, it’s not threatening at all.”

Source: – “For China, a New Kind of Feminism”


Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

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